There seems to be new interest in the blogosphere regarding what Stephen Jay Gould had to say about evolution, invigorated, at least in part, by Jerry Coyne’s post on The Loom. This appears to have grown into the creation of a “ScienceBlogs Book Club” which will discuss Gould’s massive book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. I read it when it came out. I am certain that Larry Moran has read it. But we’re not on ScienceBlogs (he declined, and I was never approached). I also am fairly sure that PZ Myers has read it, so maybe he can provide some perspective.
My last post dealt briefly with one aspect of this discussion, namely a misinterpretation of punctuated equilibria as representing a saltatationist mechanism. In no small part, this has been based on cherry picking quotes from Gould’s diverse writings, which did indeed cover mutations of substantial effect in addition to patterns of speciation in geological timescales.
This time I want to revisit one of Gould’s most famous quotes, and certainly his most infamous. The version that is most familiar, I believe, is the one cited in Charlesworth et al. (1982), who quote Gould thus:
I have been watching it [neo-Darwinism] slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution … I have been reluctant to admit it … but … that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as a text-book orthodoxy.
Strong claims, to be sure. But evolutionary biologists, I should hope, are always wary of ellipses, and that passage has several.
Here is Gould’s (1980) quote in full (emphasis added):
I well remember how the synthetic theory beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the mid-1960’s. Since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution. The molecular assault came first, followed quickly by renewed attention to unorthodox theories of speciation and by challenges at the level of macroevolution itself. I have been reluctant to admit it — since beguiling is often forever — but if Mayr’s characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.
The question is, what was Mayr’s characterization that Gould considered effectively dead as a general proposition?
Ernst Mayr (1963) (emphasis added):
The proponents of the synthetic theory maintain that all evolution is due to the accumulation of small genetic changes, guided by natural selection, and that transspecific evolution is nothing but an extrapolation and magnification of the events that take place within populations and species.
Polyploidy. Genetic drift. Mass extinction. Gould said many controversial things, but his claim, without ellipses, that the modern synthesis so defined had perished was pretty neutral.
Charlesworth, B., R. Lande, and M. Slatkin. 1982. A neo-Darwinian commentary on macroevolution. Evolution 36: 474-498.
Gould, S.J. 1980. Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging? Paleobiology 6: 119-130.
Mayr, E. 1963. Animal Species and Evolution. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.